Friday, September 27, 2019

Four family-friendly fall hikes

Autumn in New York is really something special.

While it tells us that summer is but a memory and winter is on its way, Mother Nature must take pity on us because she treats us to an explosion of color that is remarkable and breathtaking, magnified by the Empire State’s waterways, farmlands, and mountains.

Leaf-peeping is something every family should do, multiple times, over the early fall. That fosters visions of road trips, but not every family has the time to spend the entire day in the Southern Tier or the money for gas, lodging, and food while on a long weekend in the Adirondacks. Luckily, we are blessed with so many natural assets throughout the region that you can take the kids on a mini-adventure in parks and trails that are just minutes from your home.

This column appears in the newspapers of 3 communities (Niagara Falls, Lockport, and Batavia), so I offer to you 4 great fall hikes that are close to some if not all of my readers:

Swallow Hollow: If you grew up in eastern Niagara, Orleans, or Genesee Counties there’s a good chance your class took a field trip to Swallow Hollow and an equal chance that you haven’t thought about this trail since. You should put it back on the radar. Located on East Shelby Road on the Iroquois Wildlife Refuge, it’s a pleasant 1.3 mile loop trail around a wetland and through some woods, the highlight being two long stretches of boardwalk over the top of swampland. The entire trail is in great shape, so great as a matter of fact that you can push a baby stroller through the entire length as I have quite a few times. This is definitely an autumn hike for the entire family – I’ve seen folks take seniors on wheelchair rides on the boardwalk.

Victor Fitchlee Park: Also known as the Royalton Ravine, this Niagara County park in Gasport is 150 acres of open space, woods, and two ponds. The forest is very diverse with beeches, maples, oaks, and hickories that produce a wide variety of colors which make for great sights and photography. Cutting through the center of the park is Red Creek which you will cross on a suspension bridge that’s 140 feet long and bounces like a wave when kids jump up and down on it. Towards the west end of the park the stream plummets over Norton’s Falls, which is 24 feet high. It’s a really interesting hike; just be sure to wear appropriate footwear because there are some slick spots going down some wet trails in the ravine.    

The Erie Canalway Trail: Never overlook what is commonly known to long-time locals as “the towpath” (which harkens back to its originally purpose when the Erie Canal was a critical shipping route). As it cuts through Niagara and Orleans Counties it passes by hundreds of farms and woodlots, the rolling fields and colored woodlands complimenting each other quite nicely, offering a palette of brilliant hues. Access is plentiful, found at any number of bridges, and the trail is perfectly flat, in excellent shape, and stroller friendly. 

The Devil’s Hole: I’ve saved the best hike, and the most difficult, for last. It’s difficult in terms that someone with bad knees or hips can’t do it and neither can most kids under the age of 4 (unless you have them in a baby backpack) -- but that shouldn’t scare away hikers. At Devil’s Hole State Park, right off the Robert Moses Parkway in Niagara Falls, you will descend a stone staircase deep into the bowels of the Niagara Gorge (and you will use a staircase to get out), encompassing hundreds of steps. It’s 2.5 miles round trip, much longer if you join up with the Whirpool Trail (which is itself is a little adventurous). It’s worth the exertion (which isn’t so bad if you pace yourself and your kids and periodically stop) because the scenery is unmatched – it’s what helps make Niagara Falls a world-class destination. The river’s rapids are incredibly powerful and offer a nice foreground to photos you would take of the varied fall colors from the dozens of species of trees and shrubs found growing on the steep cliffs of the gorge that is hundreds of feet deep. It really is a “must see”. 

There are dozens more trails to tackle in Western New York this fall, each with its own beauty, its own set of colors. Take the time to do some leaf-peeping on them – there are wonderful autumnal staycations to be had with family.

From the 30 September 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, September 20, 2019

Could a permit system save the Adirondacks?

The Adirondack Park is a spectacular natural resource. Six million acres of pristine public and private land ensure that we and our descendants have forever wild lands in a world where wild space is rare and in peril.

Despite considerable protections afforded by our state constitution the Adirondacks Mountains are under attack. But, in this case it’s not by development, deforestation, or mining. Instead, they are under attack by the very people for whom the Park is an asset and who claim to believe the vision of the Park: Outdoors enthusiasts, experienced and inexperienced, are overusing and misusing the Park to the point of putting Mother Nature – and themselves -- in peril.

More specifically, it’s the High Peaks Wilderness Area that is being abused. That territory covers just 5 percent of the Park but it contains 36 of the High Peaks (mountains exceeding elevations of 4,000 feet), making it the destination of a destination. Perhaps thanks to all of the free advertising, sense of community, or culture of one-upmanship of the social media age, more people than ever before are tackling the High Peaks. Registration records at various trailheads show that. In 2016, approximately 35,000 hikers hit the Cascade Trail, 3 times as many as 2010. In 2016, more than 25,000 hikers registered at Ausable, almost twice 2011’s total. Those are just 2 of many trails facing similar challenges.

Rather than spreading mankind’s increasing numbers throughout the park -- thus minimizing impact while still affording everyone the chance to appreciate Mother nature’s awesomeness -- this increase in tourism, as welcome as it may be for the economy, small businesses, and residents of an area that sorely needs it, has funneled humanity on the same trails and the same mountaintops creating environmental and public safety hazards.

It has led to erosion and destruction of trails and accompanying watersheds, an increase in the amount of litter found in forests, trampling of rare and fragile alpine space that took decades to reclaim, harassment and habituation of wildlife, and the loss of solitude that was once the crown jewel of the Adirondacks experience.

Humans are equally in danger as parking lots are overflowing and vehicles line county and state roads for miles creating significant traffic hazards while too many (dare I say a majority?) of hikers are ill-prepared for the physicality of the jaunts and the weather conditions that can dangerously change in an instant.

Take some time to go online to research recent incident reports for carry-outs, first aid, support and correction of environmental hazards undertaken by overworked NY Forest rangers in the High Peaks area. They will blow your mind -- some of the incidents border on the comical, though in all actuality they are frustrating, highlighting the inexperience and ignorance of visitors and the resources the state has to devote to them. Realize, too, that in all those day-to-day activities, those Rangers had to complete 98 significant search-and-rescue incidents in the High Peaks in 2016. Four years earlier, there were just 62 SARs there.

What can be done to fix these problems while still allowing the world to appreciate this unique wilderness?

For starters, the Department of Environmental Conservation should hire many more forest rangers (something this writer already championed in a July 2018 column).

Secondly, I think it is critical that the State institute systems of permitting and licensing for use of the High Peaks.

A free permitting system, whereby only X number of hikers would be able to use a specific trail during a given period, should be put in place to cut down on the overuse and force, through the invisible hand, use of trails less travelled but rewarding in their own way. It would be no different than user permits already in play at state campgrounds throughout the Park – if, say, the Eighth Lake campground is full, potential customers are sent away. So, it’s not as if quotas or caps are new things to the outdoors experience.

And, neither is licensing. For decades now, hunting and fishing licenses have been required, not only to help fund conservation and game management efforts, but, in the case of the former, also to ensure competency and safety, the same reasons New Yorkers now have to be licensed to use motor boats and jet skis.

A simple, free licensing system -- yes, free; this should not be a cash grab -- could be implemented using online tools, like any college or corporate training course. Knowledge and capability are powerful tools.  The licensing process would educate users of the High Peaks on critical aspects of environmental safety (Leave No Trace, what to do with bodily waste, why we stay on trails) and personal safety (what to wear, what to bring, what to do in the event of…). This certification would have to accompany a use permit.    

Permits and licenses may all seem antithetical to the typical libertarian bent of this column, but we’re talking about a public, not private, asset that needs protection to ensure healthy outcomes of the forests and waters and the people who are using them. Failure to address the issue of overuse and misuse will ignore the vision behind the Park and destroy the Adirondacks, a natural wonderland that belongs to all of us and deserves our stewardship accordingly.

From the 23 September 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, September 13, 2019

Plea bargains can allow sex offenders to repeat their abuses

Plea bargains are arrangements made between prosecutors and defendants, sometimes with or without the full, open consult of the parties involved, in which the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser and often entirely unrelated charge in exchange for a lenient sentence or agreement to drop other charges.

They are made for a number of reasons, such as saving the resources of the individual or public when it comes to a trial; ensuring a speedy resolution of cases; not subjecting accusers or the aggrieved to the horrors of reliving their experience; avoiding the possibility of not-guilty verdicts; and showing mercy to the accused. 

Pleas are a common tool of the US judicial system. 97 percent of federal convictions are the result of plea deals while that number reaches 94 percent for state-level felony convictions.

These deals are often used for lesser offenses, too, such as speeding tickets whereby people plead guilty to not wearing a seat belt or having a parking infraction in order to not pay the larger fine or accrue penalty points. 

Despite their abundance in and importance to the judicial system, plea bargains aren’t perfect.

Too often men of color, lesser income, and lesser education are improperly counseled, even manipulated, to pursue a plea deal even though they are innocent. This results in unmerited incarceration and years, if not decades lost, in a life already too short on this Earth.  

And then there’s the other extreme – individuals who are likely guilty of a major crime get off Scot free and are allowed to continue the behaviors and actions that should have had them registered if not imprisoned.

We saw that very thing recently happen here in New York.

Two weeks ago, 55 year-old Ronald Rowcliffe was charged with sexually assaulting several scouts at the Massawepie Boy Scout camp in the Adirondacks this summer and during the summers of 2017 and 2018.

The unmitigated evil of that is disgusting enough, but so is the fact that had the courts not utilized a plea he would not have passed the BSA’s background check and he wouldn’t have been able to work at the camp or be a scout leader in Brockport. And, he would have failed similar checks for driving bus for the Brockport School District from 2014 to 2017.

You see, this is not Rowcliffe’s first run-in with the law for allegedly abusing children and it was something he even did as a member of the law.

Most recently, in August of 2000, while a member of Holley’s Police force – a position of public trust --Rowcliffe was charged with 3 counts of endangering the welfare of a child after an investigation revealed he gave 3 boys -- ages 15, 16 and 16 -- haircuts in his home where he asked them to strip, shower and view porn.

Rowcliffe was allowed to plead guilty for something completely unrelated to defiling or preparing for abuse teenage boys: Unlawful possession of a noxious material, an outcome of pepper spray being released in his personal vehicle while off-duty. At the conclusion of a six-month adjournment and the associated treatment, the charges against him were dismissed.

Mind you, Rowcliffe had previously resigned from the Holley Police Department In 1988 after allegations involving inappropriate behavior with a teenage boy. The teen's parents declined to press charges against Rowcliffe at the time.

That said, given the track record, why was a plea deal utilized so easily? Why was it used it all? Couldn’t at least one of the three boys have gone ahead with the trial? Was the plea deal the court’s way of looking out for the police? How was a noxious material plea applied to his noxious behavior?  

There are so many questions, these and many more, but they all lead back to one: What can we do as a just society to minimize plea bargains when it comes to individuals who are likely to commit their alleged crimes again and put the innocent, helpless and impressionable at risk?

By Rowcliffe not having a record, not being affixed with some sort of scarlet letter, he was allowed to volunteer for a youth organization and go on trips with kids, drive a school bus and gain the trust of children, and work at a resident camp where he was accused of committing heinous acts.

Understand, too, that those Adirondack crimes are only the known cases – how many more have gone underreported for the very reason we now have the Child Victims Act (that is, minors are afraid and ashamed to report sexual abuse)?

We’re better than that as a community, state, country, and people. We cannot allow sex offenders to plea down and dumb down their crimes. We need to know who they are and where they are (and if they assaulted or raped children it had better be in prison) so we can protect the precious children, our world’s future.

Think about this: This year, the state passed a Red Flag law that immediately, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently, strips a gun owner of his access to his weapons if family or schools perceive a threat to safety. Yet, we don’t have a Red Flag law for sex offenders. They are still allowed to keep their, ahem, “weapon” and have access to their prey no matter how many flags go up.

How do we change this and save our kids from future Rowcliffes?  

From the 16 September 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News